The Last Mistress, 2007. There is a moment in the film when the Comtesse d’Artelles (Yolande Moreau), after having played her part in mitigating the scandal surrounding the dashing, but inscrutable rogue, Ryno de Marigny’s (Fu’ad Aït Aattou) unresolved romantic entanglement with his long term mistress – and, consequently, enabling his marriage to the Marquise’s granddaughter and heir, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida) – contently looks out of the window of the Marquise de Flers’s (Claude Sarraute) seaside estate and observes, “How the sea rises!” It is a line taken directly from the text of Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s titular novel that, delivered by veteran actress Moreau, becomes a double entendre reference to her own directorial debut feature, When the Sea Rises…. In a way, Catherine Breillat’s infusion of subtle humor in the film reflects a certain accessible, newfound sensibility to her cinema. Using the metaphor of the brewing sea as a portent for the reappearance of Ryno’s former mistress, a Spanish enchantress named La Vellini (Asia Argento) into his life following his marriage (an image that is incisively reinforced by Hermangarde’s discovery of La Vellini, dressed in a fisherman’s clothes and smoking a cigar) – Breillat diverges from the (explicitly) transgressive elements that have come to define her cinema towards a more implicit and refined, yet still sensual, atmospheric, and deeply romantic tale of fidelity, passion, and obsession. Ostensibly a tale of the penniless Ryno’s attempts to win Hermangarde’s hand in marriage by convincing the Marquise that his reputation as a reckless womanizer is behind him, the film proceeds in extended flashback as the sprightly Marquise conducts a thorough inquisition, not of his sexual exploits, but of his more problematic history of having conducted a ten year affair (which, as the Marquise appropriately points out, is essentially a marriage) with La Vellini. Framing La Vellini and Ryno’s tumultuous relationship within the context of Breillat’s recurring explorations on sexual ambiguity (most notably, in Romance and Fat Girl), the androgyny inherent in La Vellini’s aggressiveness and Ryno’s sensitivity become a reflection, not only of their inherent narcissism as dandyist provocateurs seeking to ingratiate themselves into aristocracy, but also their emotional interdependence and mutual obsession.
Paranoid Park, 2007. There is a palpable sentiment of trying to capture the ephemeral that runs through Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, a film that further modulates his now familiar aesthetic of melding abstract episodes of hypnotic time drift with the alienated portrait of imploding, angry youth that have characterized his more recent films (beginning with his Béla Tarr epiphany film, Gerry). Based on the young adult novel by Portland author, Blake Nelson, the film follows a cherubic, teenaged skater, Alex’s (Gabe Nevins) process of writing a diaristic letter to an unknown recipient (later revealed to be a classmate and casual acquaintance named Macy (Lauren Mc Kinney)) at an overgrown lookout near a desolate sound. Unfolding in often repeating, time altered flashbacks that recount Alex’s suppressed, traumatic experience – and moments of pure bliss – surrounding his consuming, but reluctant obsession to visit Paranoid Park (an abandoned industrial site that was transformed into an advanced skate park by homeless, thrill-seeking kids), that are juxtaposed against images of his upended personal life as his separated parents (Grace Carter and John “Smay” Williamson) attempt to reassure him of their undying love and support despite their impending divorce, and his flighty, cheerleader girlfriend, Jennifer (Taylor Momsen) continues to pressure him to have sex, the film is an airy and swooning, if delicate and friable tone piece that strives to give form to an adolescent’s subconscious awareness of passage, moral consequence, and impermanence that comes with the process of maturation. In a sense, his parents’ vain promise that everything will be the same as before becomes a sobering reinforcement of his own realization of its consequential impossibility after a reckless, life-altering experience. It is within this consciousness of irretrievable time that the impressionistic, swooning slow motion images of skaters riding the concrete waves of Paranoid Park become an intrinsic reflection of Alex’s own impressionable psyche – a naïve representation of his own desperate, unarticulated desire to manipulate time and return to an enchanted place of blissful innocence and fanciful imagination.
I Just Didn’t Do It, 2007. On an unassuming morning, a preoccupied young man, Teppei Kaneko (Ryo Kase) irregularly boards an overcrowded train (with the assistance of the station’s white gloved, attendant shover) with his briefcase in hand on his way to a job interview and, while in transit, realizes that his jacket had been caught between the closing doors. Pinned to the doors of the train, Teppei instinctively continues to pull his jacket free, much to the irritation of the other passengers, until the train arrives at the station and releases him. On the surface, what appeared to be little more than a minor inconvenience in his morning commute would prove to be the beginning of a Kafkaesque nightmare when a schoolgirl grabs his sleeve at the platform and publicly accuses him of having groped her inside the train. Interrogated by police officers who immediately advise him to put the matter behind him by accepting the charge (on an apparently common occurrence) and paying a token, punitive fine (an advice subsequently echoed by his unmotivated public defender), Teppei instead refuses to be railroaded into a plea bargain and becomes more determined to prove his innocence in court. Caught in the judicial hypocrisy of having to remain in jail until the trial is underway because of his proclaimed innocence (even as other admitted offenders, having paid their customary fines, are immediately allowed to return home), the naïve Teppei enlists the aid of his mother (Masako Motai), best friend, Tatsuo (Koji Yamamoto, an idealistic defense attorney, Arakawa (Koji Yakusho), and his more skeptical junior colleague, Riko Sudo (Asaka Seto) to accept his long-shot case in the idealistic belief that innocence can triumph over the weight of judicial expediency. Masayuki Suo’s I Just Didn’t Do It is a taut, painstakingly observed, and incisive procedural on the intricacies of Japan’s highly efficient, juryless, one judge criminal justice system. During the Q&A, Suo remarked that the story had been loosely inspired by newspaper headlines of an appellate court’s reversal of a conviction handed down by a lower court. For Suo, the media’s particular attention in broadcasting such rare acquittals reinforces a public misconception and fosters complacency towards the dispensation and fairness of the justice system. At the heart of his sobering social realist drama is the country’s boasted 99.9% conviction rate, a daunting statistic that implicitly assumes a defendant’s guilt, despite the founding tenets of blind justice. Framed against Japanese society’s inherent cultural conformity, the statistic itself has become a symptom of perverted justice – an egregiously exploited tool for inducing confession, rather than a resulting measure of the system’s infallibility.
Alexandra, 2007. One of my favorite films from this year’s festival is Aleksandr Sokurov’s Alexandra, a spare, poetic, and understatedly affirming elegy on the spiritual and moral consequences of a corrosive, interminable war. At the heart and soul of the film is the stubborn and indomitable babushka, Alexandra, played by the famed Russian soprano and sprightly octogenarian (and wife of the late pre-eminent cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich), Galina Vishnevskaya, who, as the film begins, has curiously embarked on an ill advised, physically demanding journey of cramped boxcars, all terrain vehicles, and even battle tanks to arrive at a military outpost near a war torn Chechen village. Waking in her barracks “hotel” to the sight of her devoted, Denis (Vasili Shevtsov), a dashing and well respected officer in the Russian army who maintains a busy schedule with short deployments to insurgency hotspots, Alexandra soon grows weary of the inscrutable, yet highly regulated movements and seemingly arbitrary rules that define life within the camp (a frustration that is understatedly reflected in Alexandra’s disorienting navigation through a maze of barracks) and undertakes her own journey to find a sense of normalcy in the most mundane of tasks – going to the local market – where she encounters and finds communion with an elderly Chechen refugee named Malika (Raisa Gichaeva), a former teacher who, now in her twilight years, is forced to make a meager living selling sundries at a market stall under the sobering reality of an inhumane existence in the decimated, occupied village. Returning to the metaphoric landscapes of Spiritual Voices and Confession in their evocative images of quotidian ritual and the profound desolation that exists within the remote frontiers of a long forgotten war, Sokurov uses desaturated sepia tones, arid and barren landscapes, primitive living conditions, and battle-scarred architectures to create a metaphor for a wounded humanity struggling to survive against the madness of conditioned barbarity, where solidarity and a lasting peace are achieved, not in the systematic demoralization of a people, but in the fragile community of mundane, yet defiant, ennobled gestures.
In the City of Sylvia, 2007. One of the most striking aspects of José Luis Guerín’s preceding film, En Construcción is the recurring image of cast shadows in motion as a metaphor for the “ghost residents” of El Chino – the migrant laborers, evicted tenants, and even unearthed ancient corpses whose traces of existence and personal histories are gradually being displaced by the gentrification of the port town. In retrospect, the reappearance of these elusive, transient shadows in In the City of Sylvia (this time, as phantasmagoric projections onto the wall of the dreamer’s hotel room) also provides the haunted tone of the film as the young traveler (Xavier Lafitte) – an artist and dreamer – returns to the cosmopolitan, medieval city of Strasbourg where, six years earlier, he had met a woman named Sylvie at a bar. For the dreamer, Sylvie is also a ghost, a remembrance of things past that grows sweeter in the abstraction of memory, and all he can do is to attempt to recapture her essence and give form to the ideal by immersing himself in the atmosphere of her city. Spending his waking moments religiously jotting down details and random observations in his sketchbook (a figurative act of historical reconstruction) – the cut of the hair, the curve of the neck, the shape of the mouth – these (appropriately) faceless, impressionistic sketches begin to converge and overlay each other within the faint intersections of their organic, evolving stories in the pages of his notebook (in one episode, a distracted waitress, annotated as “elle”, is placed in the milieu of the café’s equally interesting patrons and re-annotated as “elles”; in a subsequent episode, the dreamer’s quick succession scanning through his notebook suggests flipbook animation, in a sense, making Sylvie come to life) until one day when he spots a young woman (Pilar López de Ayala) who may or may not be Sylvie through the window of the café. As in En Construcción, the seemingly incidental, interstitial sequences of passing shadows become a reflection of a resurfaced, dislocated past – a transformed memory that not only grows more ephemeral with the passage of time but also continues to reinsert its own vitality in the present. In a way, the stories of these ghosts, like the idea of Sylvie, never completely fade away even in their conscious supplanting: their histories retold in the silent architectures (most notably, in a graffiti proclaiming “Laure – Je t’aime” that traces the dreamer’s pursuit of Sylvie), passing conversations, recycled artifacts, accidental encounters, and recounted – and often, colored – personal histories chronicled in the animated chapters of an eternal, quixotic quest.
I’m Not There, 2007. Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There is an audacious and ingeniously conceived, if overlong and diluted free verse composition on the enigma of legendary artist, iconoclast, seeker, and voice of a generation, Bob Dylan. Haynes’s idiosyncratic portrait of the artist as a loosely interwoven collage of overlapping incarnations filmed in different stylistic genres that reflect the inhabited personas embodied by Dylan is particularly inspired. Illustrated as a picaresque adventure, Dylan is a charismatic, young drifter with a nebulous (and seemingly troubled) past named Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), whose penchant for outmoded folksongs reflects his old soul. Shot as a grainy, early television broadcast, he metamorphoses into poet, Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw) whose writing reflected a sense of indulgent, libertine anarchy. Presented as a 1950s rebellious youth film, he is tortured artist, Jack Rollins (Christian Bale) seeking to maintain the relevance of his music in turbulent times. Framed as a 1970s, “me generation” film, he is an alienated rock star, Robbie (Heath Ledger) struggling between the temptations (and excesses) of celebrity and his failing marriage. Depicted as newsreel footage, he is a misunderstood, chameleon-like personality, Jude (Cate Blanchett), whose creative integrity (and sincerity) comes under attack in the face of his increasing musical and recreational experimentation. And finally, filmed as a western, he is a reclusive outlaw, Billy the Kid (Richard Gere), still haunted by the shadows of his legendary fame. Using parallel personality traits as a means of self-referentially that connects the disparate personas – Woody and Jack’s search for salt of the earth authenticity, Arthur and Jude’s (implied) sexual ambiguity, Robbie and Jude’s disillusionment with fame – Haynes creates an initially cohesive portrait of the artist as a young man that ultimately unravels under the weight of increasingly indulgent and only marginally connected vignettes (most notably, in the inclusion of the uninvolving, hermetic Billy the Kid persona which does little to expound on the Dylan enigma).
Memories, 2007 (Jeonju Digital Project): Respite, The Rabbit Hunters, Correspondences
Respite (Harun Farocki). Harun Farocki’s contribution to the 2007 Jeonju International Film Festival Digital Project channels the spirit of his magnum opus, Images of the World and the Inscription of War to create a potent and provocative film essay on production, warfare, historical reconstruction, and the role of image-making. A prefacing text on the source of the found film provides the sobering context to the seemingly mundane scene of weary, confused passengers deboarding a train at a desolate station in wartime Europe. Filmed from the German transit camp in occupied Westerbork in the Netherlands, the assorted 16mm footage of “everyday life” at the camp was photographed in 1944 by an inmate, Rudolf Breslauer (who was subsequently deported and killed), under orders from the SS commander, Albert Gemmeker, who, in turn, commissioned the film in order to showcase the productivity of the transit camp (Gemmeker would subsequently testify that he had envisioned the project as a film for tourists) and, implicitly, its integral role in the German war machine as both a raw materials recycling facility and a deportation hub for trains leaving, every Tuesday morning, for the concentration camps of Bergen-Belsen, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Sobibor. Composed as a silent essay film, Farocki’s use of repeating images that are further emphasized by the spareness of intertitles reflects his expositions on the role of filmmaking as the creation of afterimages. In essence, by working with the artifacts of Breslauer’s found film, Farocki’s role becomes one, not of image production, but rather, a kind of image archaeology, where reality is sought in the critical observation, juxtaposition, correlation, and interpretation of (absolute) images. In one repeated sequence from Breslauer’s sole shot footage of a departing train, a brief close-up of a gaunt and visibly frightened girl is framed, initially within the context of the Germans’ penchant for precision and accuracy (in meticulously posting a correction to the accounting of people who had been loaded into a boxcar), then subsequently, in her identification as a ten-year-old Sinti girl named Settela Steinbach that leads to Farocki’s theory on Breslauer’s apparent rejection of close-ups in subsequent footage. Similarly, the footage of inmates extracting copper wires and fibers from electrical conduit is also repeated in the film, as both a demonstration of worker efficiency, and an allusion to the figurative recycling of human bodies (particularly, in the extraction of “Auschwitz gold” from the teeth of the dead). Alternately exposing inherent half truths (shots of smiling inmates at work and at their leisure omit the underlying reality that their expression is one of relief for their temporary reprieve from the weekly deportation train), unintentional humor (in the Germans’ repackaging of the camp as a corporate venture with its own company logo and productivity charts), and overt propaganda (in the repeated, often slow-motion demonstrations of efficient manual labor and the deliberate low profile of Nazis around the camp that provide a false impression of the inmates’ relative freedom), the idiosyncratic repetition of images serves, not only to reinforce the afterimage, but also to reframe the image through its differing contexts – through its permutations of assigned meaning.
The Rabbit Hunters (Pedro Costa). Pedro Costa’s entry, The Rabbit Hunters is a graceful modulation of his short film Tarrafal from the The State of the World omnibus, a series of elliptical encounters shot from the perspective of displaced Fonthainas elder villagers, Ventura, the paternal, old soul drifting through the vestiges of his dying neighborhood in Colossal Youth, and his unemployed and homeless friend, Alfredo (rather than José Alberto’s perspective in Tarrafal). At one point in the film, a cook, having offered free meals of leftover soup to Ventura and Alfredo in the back kitchen, proceeds to brush off the dirt and grime from Ventura’s clothing to make him look more presentable, and gives him a filial admonition for his careworn, disheveled appearance. “I’m haunted by lots of ghosts”, explains Ventura. Similar to Costa’s seminal film Casa de Lava, the characters’ existential limbo is also a spiritual desolation borne of a haunted, implacable landscape. In The Rabbit Hunters, the repressed environmental memory has been formed by Tarrafal’s unspoken history as a concentration camp site once dubbed the “camp of slow death” during the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, where political dissidents and anti-colonialists were imprisoned and tortured. In a sense, the prison camp has become the embodiment of a corrosive, suppressed memory that has metastasized and leeched into the landscape, contaminating everyone who has lived on – and off – the land (in one episode, Alfredo recounts having trapped nothing but diseased animals to take home and cook for his meals). Like the long-forgotten prisoners before them, the villagers, too, exist in a state of slow death, discarded by the living and haunted by unreconciled ghosts – an ambiguity that is reflected in Ventura and Alfredo’s odd conversations over each other’s death experiences. Concluding with a shot of José Alberto’s deportation letter that has been affixed to a wall by a pocket knife, the film comes to a metaphoric full circle – illustrating the connection between the trauma of dislocation and institutionalized marginalization.
Correspondences (Eugène Green). On the surface, the stark brightness inherent in digital film would seem an unusual medium for the tonally incandescent, classical palette of Eugène Green’s baroque films. Nevertheless, in hindsight, the union of old and new media (and technology) proves conducive to Green’s creative ideology of redefining baroque as a (still) relevant, versatile, timeless, and contemporary art form. In Correspondences, Green returns to his familiar themes of interconnectedness, communion, and transcendent love (most recently illustrated in Green’s sublime feature Le Pont des Arts) to create a tale of young love in the digital age. Presented as a series of emails read offscreen that are juxtaposed against isolated frontal shots of the anonymous lovers and the (interior) spaces they inhabit, the film also subtly evokes Alain Resnais’s baroque, nouveau roman puzzle film Last Year at Marienbad in its interplay of memory and seduction (or more appropriately, memory as seduction). At the heart of the film is the young hero, Virgile’s (François Rivière) quest to win the love of Blanche (Delphine Hecquet), a young woman whom he has only seen (and danced with) once at a nightclub. For Virgile, their fates are intertwined, and he must convince her of their shared destiny; for Blanche, there is only the blankness of an unregistered memory, and the guilt of a young man’s suicide (in an apparent homage to Jean Eustache). Similar to the Virgil of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, Virgile is the enlightened guide who will lead Blanche through the realm of lost souls and, with the realization of true love, break the bounds of impossibility. From this perspective, Virgile’s quest also articulates Green’s aesthetic vision in an age of new media – a desire to create texture from the intangible, a contour from the binary.
The Flight of the Red Balloon, 2007. During an early conversation in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), having only recently met her young son, Simon’s (Simon Iteanu) new minder, Song (Fang Song), a student from Beijing who moved to Paris to study film, expresses her gratitude for lending a copy of a short film that she had recently completed, remarking that the film had reminded her profoundly of her own childhood – not in the familiarity of the content itself, but in the sensations, aromas, and memories that were stirred up in the collective association of the disparate images. In a way, Suzanne’s experience also conveys the intangible ideal behind Hou’s vision for the film, a slender and diaphanous, but accessible and finely rendered homage to Albert Lamorisse’s beloved postwar short film, The Red Balloon. Hou filters the child’s perspective of Lamorisse’s film through the alterity of Song’s (and implicitly, Hou’s own) gaze: as a foreigner in Paris, as a new member of a chaotic household adjusting to the rhythm of the fractured family’s set routines and nuances (and dramas) of unarticulated histories, as a personal filmmaker working through the intersections and divergences between Lamorisse’s approach to the children’s tale and her own. Similarly, Hou’s patient and painstakingly observed vision is inherently a dual natured one, tempered by both his figurative innocence (as a non-native filmmaker shooting an homage to a culturally rooted French film with a child actor) and knowingness as an adult – an implied understanding of life’s everyday complications that is also reflected in his heroine’s muted, polite (and perhaps resigned) responses of “d’accord”. To this end, Hou’s disarmingly (but appropriately) facile illustration of the film’s inherent duality is elegantly encapsulated in Simon’s school trip to the Musée d’Orsay, where a curator’s interaction with the children reveals the ambiguities in even a seemingly banal image of a child at play in Félix Vallotton’s The Ball. This impossibility of absolute recreation (and consequently, interpretation) is also reflected in the drifting, omnipresent red balloon that Simon spots hovering beyond the glass roof of the museum – in its own way, an evocation – a subjective reality shaped by the estrangement of culture, time, history, and memory.
Go Go Tales, 2007. During the Q&A for Go Go Tales, native New Yorker Abel Ferrara indicated that although the film’s main setting, Ray Ruby’s Paradise Lounge looks like something straight out of the city’s seedier sections, the authentically gaudy look of the cabaret was actually inspired by an interchangeable array of fly-by-night strip clubs that used to operate around Union Square and painstakingly reconstructed as one continuous set at the famed Cinecittà Studios in Rome. In hindsight, the association with Cinecittà, the legendary studio that also served as the blank canvas for Federico Fellini’s imagined worlds (including such masterworks as La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2), proves conducive to channeling the carnivalesque atmosphere of Fellini’s cinema towards Ferrara’s own risqué, disorienting, and perversely funny comedy. Framed as a loose, 24 hour chronicle of life at a run down strip club that is anything but paradise, the film follows the chaos surrounding the singular personality that is Ray Ruby, a smarmy, charismatic, Rupert Pupkin-styled club owner, master of ceremonies, perennial dreamer, and self-admitted lottery addict as he struggles to find a way to bring in more customers and keep the club afloat, continues to (re)negotiate with his increasingly disgruntled staff of unpaid exotic dancers (and who, in turn, are constantly being incited to strike by a seductive, new dancer/performance artist from Eastern Europe named Monroe (Asia Argento)), tries to placate his curmudgeonly landlady (Anita Pallenberg) who unexpectedly pays a visit to revoke his tenancy so that she can lease the space to Bed, Bath and Beyond, and argues with his silent partner, younger brother Johnie (Matthew Modine) – the most successful hairdresser in Staten Island – who wants to pull his financial support from Ray’s money draining venture. Ferrara’s penchant for organic structure, over-the-top imagery, and twisted, if innately humanist, morality especially suit the film’s rich ensemble casting and intersecting storylines that provide texture and authenticity to Ferrara’s unfiltered commentary on the plight of the poor, often immigrant, working class who take on these humbling, unseemly jobs in the pursuit of the American dream. Using the beleaguered club as a symbol of the staff’s own unrealized ambitions (a correlation that is reinforced in the club’s hosting of a weekly, after hours talent showcase, mostly catering to family and friends), Ferrara creates a polarizing and blunt, yet astute and unexpectedly compassionate allegory for the inextinguishable creative spirit in all its chaos, volatility, isolation, hope, and exhilaration.
Silent Light, 2007. On the surface, it’s hard to find fault with the execution of Carlos Reygadas’s latest film, a timeless tale of love, betrayal, desire, and sacrifice set within a remote (and appropriately atemporal) Mennonite community in rural northern Mexico. Nevertheless, despite an implicitly spiritual context that is suggested by the religious community setting, and drawing loose inspiration on themes from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet, Reygadas’s vision subverts expectation in its portrait of eternal human struggle, not as a path towards transcendence, but rather, as evidence of immanence in the everyday ritual. Reygadas visually encapsulates this sense of quotidian grace in the remarkable, bookending long take of a desolate landscape transforming under the diurnal revolution of an oblate earth – the kind of meticulous, vaguely oneiric, self-contained opening shots that have come to define his cinema – as the sublime image of a transforming, yet eternal nature cuts to the disconnected image of a Mennonite farmer, Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr), his wife, Esther (Miriam Toews), and their children in quiet prayer (in a sense, a personal expression of silent grace) before eating their breakfast. In its abrupt visual and tonal shift, the film’s oblique segue also suggests the influence of Lisandro Alonso’s inverted narrative form in Los Muertos, where the introductory shots of a tactile, corporeal reality gives way to a metaphoric journey of interiority. Moreover, in its cyclical representation of life and death, good and evil, beginning and ending of relationships, Reygadas also channels familiar Bruno Dumont themes and the essentiality of his representational images (most notably, in the framing of landscape and casting of non-actors as physical archetypes) to create a film that is decidedly anti-Dumont. This seemingly conscious subversion of Dumont’s aesthetics is perhaps best exemplified by a sequence involving a reckless driver in a red pickup truck who tailgates Johan on a desolate stretch of road before speeding away – an episode that invites immediate association with the ominous encounter of Twentynine Palms. It is this repeating pattern of adoption and subversion of familiar, repurposed images throughout the film that, for all its elegant cinematography and self-awareness of its role as art, ultimately detracts from the singularity of Reygadas’s admirable vision, a puzzling strategy for realizing impeccably constructed, personal filmmaking through the filtered reconstitution of borrowed gazes and short hand iconography.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 2007. Coincidentally, like Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a film that is also characterized by the element of subverted expectation, but this time, to indelible and bracing effect. Set in Romania during the waning days of Soviet bloc communism under Nikolai Ceaucescu in the late 1980s where abortion had been outlawed as a means of increasing the country’s birth rate, the film chronicles a day in the life of Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), a pragmatic university student who, as the film begins, has agreed to assist her confused, but determined roommate, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) in obtaining an illegal abortion. But almost immediately, Otilia realizes that her flighty, unreliable roommate has not planned things with appropriate consideration: a hotel room reservation was not confirmed 24 hours before arrival and has been released to accommodate a convention, only a fraction of money needed for expenses has been raised with no money left over for contingencies, Otilia’s boyfriend, Adi (Alex Potocean) insists that she attend a family dinner party to celebrate his mother’s birthday (Luminita Gheorghiu), a male abortionist bearing the ironic moniker of Bébé (Vlad Ivanov) has been enlisted in lieu of a preferable female one, housekeeping materials that were to be brought in order to clean up and conceal traces of the performed procedure from the hotel room had been left behind, a personal, face-to-face appointment had been carelessly disregarded by Gabita, leading to Bébé’s predisposed animosity towards the young women. During the Q&A for the film, Mungiu indicated that while the film is a work of fiction, the underlying story is based on a composite of several experiences (some, far more horrific than the one portrayed in the film) of several people he knew who were of his generation and who also came of age during the Cold War and witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as the re-emergence of Romania as a democratic country. In this respect, Mungiu’s film is not only an understated allegory for the inviolability of humanity and solidarity in times of profound crisis, but also a personal testament to a forgotten, recent past that has been suppressed from a society’s collective consciousness in the wake of profound social transformation. In essence, rather than recreating an interesting, but archaic national artifact, the film remains contemporary and exceedingly relevant, not only in its attempt to exorcise and come to terms with an unreconciled history, but also as a cautionary tale on the preciousness of earned rights and personal freedoms that have been taken far too much for granted in a social climate of expected liberties, political herding, comparative wealth, and cultural apathy.
Acquarello, 2007 [reprinted]